Nine days after Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Lower Keys on September 10, staking out the region as one of the most vulnerable to climate change in America, I drove like hell to Will Benson’s house on Lower Sugarloaf to beat the dusk curfew still in place. Passing through Key Largo on my way down, I noted that restaurants were already open—hotels, too. People walking alongside the towering piles of debris waved when I passed. Farther down the road, I saw a sign that read, “You can’t drown a Conch.”
In the Conch Republic—the region of islands extending from Key Largo down to Key West—a certain kind of resilience seems omnipresent, quintessentially Southern yet distinct. Hurricanes aren’t exactly foreign around here, and most Conchs, as residents call themselves, will start rattling off differences between Georges (1998) and Wilma (2005). But unlike previous storms, most residents evacuated for Irma, especially those with families. When I first visited Benson, his wife and two kids were still camped out in Costa Rica, waiting to return. “We’ve been through this before, and we’ll go through it again,” he told me. “We learn a bit every time. It’s part of living here.”
But with the storm crimping the principal economy of tourism, you’d expect some concern for the region’s short- and long-term prospects. If hurricane seasons like this one are the new normal—and research suggests they are—how will the Keys survive?
In Monroe County, 54 percent of its workforce relies on tourism, which is a $2.7 billion industry here. Of that, recreational fishing contributes $741 million annually, according to a study published by the Bonefish Tarpon Trust in 2012, with the flats fishery totaling $465 million alone. According to the county, Irma destroyed 675 structures, 465 of them on Big Pine Key alone. Following that assessment, it deemed more than 10,000 structures affected. And in light of the storm, Monroe County Mayor George Neugent hazarded that they might lose 15 percent of the population due to relocation.
Benson, a fly-fishing guide for the past 18 years who grew up on Sugarloaf, sat in his truck with a big grin when I pulled into the driveway—his house still standing. “I’m going to Fishcamp for dinner. You want to go?” he asked. Fishcamp is actually his parents’ place. The last time I’d seen him had been July, when we celebrated Benson being crowned grand champion guide at the Del Brown Permit tournament. Now, two months later, we caught up as the last arcs of light fell away that night. At dinner, the living room was humming with people preparing cocktails and telling stories after a long day. Benson introduced me to a crew from outdoor gear brand Costa Del Mar, along with some of his clients who’d flown down to help. We ate rice, beans, chicken, and steak on paper plates, drank, and laughed. I looked out over the reticulated chain of islets and basins falling off into the Gulf, thinking the place hadn’t lost any of its charm. But also, what would follow?
The next morning, just before 7:00, we drove down U.S. 1 toward Key West. The air was still; the road empty. The stench of rotting, salt-laden flora after the storm hung in the air like humidity. Benson and Shane Smith, a local guide who lives on Sugarloaf, quipped of the storm, “I haven’t even taken my [plywood] boards down yet.” And Smith asked, “Why would you? She’s throwing strikes right now,” of Cape Verde’s accuracy during the 2017 hurricane season.
Out the window, lakes of shallow water began to appear as the first bits of light poured through the scorched mangroves. All the leaves were gone. But signs of life returned with every mile we drove from the path of Irma’s eye, the water clearing up day by day.
We were joined by a crew made up almost entirely of fishing guides who pursue permit—the most challenging, difficult, and maddening of saltwater species—and headed to Justin and Loren Rea’s house. (Justin is a guide, and Loren manages the Del Brown, March Merkin, and Cuda Bowl tournaments.) Everyone quickly broke into groups of three or four, with one person felling trees and the others hauling limbs out to the road. What was once a verdant garden hemming the place in had turned into a brown, moribund remnant of Hurricane Irma. The number of trees down and the absence of green gave the Keys a strange, unsettling feeling, maybe the starkest hangover of the storm, followed by the smell. “Now I got to think about walking around the house naked,” Rea joked.
Work that seemed insurmountable was reduced to mere hours with this number of people. Tacking on another person or two at each house, the group swelled to 20, and we headed east to triage home after home. “There’s a sense that we’ll be back on our feet before too long. A lot of chainsawing, hauling, a lot of nasty stuff,” Benson laughed, “but you can see a little bit of green on the trees.” With a 15-inch rise in sea level predicted by 2045, according to the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, Benson added, “We’re a test case for the rest of the world. I think the Keys are going to be ground zero in the climate battle.”
Before I left in September, Benson and I hopped in his skiff and ran 20 miles from Key West out to the Marquesas, circumventing a submarine graveyard and a constellation of surface debris. Benson wanted to see how the fishery fared, as this is the resource so many down here derive their livelihood from; it’s the thing many residents’ lives revolve around.
The anticipation nearly palpable, we pushed across the first flat—totally alone—and the water was clear. The sea grass even looked healthier than a few weeks before, with significantly less stagnant benthic algae. But maybe most promising, the fish were there. We doubled up on a handsome pair of bonefish, saw a few permit, and the buzz of chainsaws alongside Irma’s stench fell away for a little while.
Now, more than three months after Irma, the routine hasn’t changed much for many residents, who continue to replace shingles with tin roofs and repair foundations. Some are rebuilding entirely. Folks are still living in tents all along the Lower Keys, with nowhere to go.
While “Key West is as clean as a whistle,” the pile of debris Benson and I amassed outside his house on Lower Sugarloaf three months ago is still sitting pretty. Due to a contractual dispute over waste removal in the Lower Keys, U.S. 1 and residential streets are still lined with debris. “There are more and more piles showing up every day between Sugarloaf and Big Pine,” Benson told me. To date, more than 2 million cubic yards of debris have been extracted since Irma, but the rotting banks of debris flanking the road are growing along with the smell. Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi explained that while 8,500 trucks were necessary to clean up the Keys, only 3,500 were available statewide.
Fortunately the tourism industry that’s so vital to the islands has begun to pick up. “The clients were the first ones back and happy to go fishing. The support has been tremendous,” said Benson when I talked to him in late November. (Even still, he estimated he’d lost about $15,000 in income due to Irma.)
Turnout at this year’s annual Lower Keys Guides Association Tournament, held in November, dwarfed that of previous years, and it seemed as though Irma only strengthened the Keys. “The fish are here,” Benson said. It took about six weeks for the water to clear up, but the flats got a good “scrubbing” in the process.
On November 30, Benson called me as he stepped off his skiff that evening. There was a tenor of optimism in his voice—he’d brought the first permit to hand since the storm for one of his clients. “One of the biggest permit I’ve ever guided to in my life,” he told me. It also happened to be the last day of the Atlantic hurricane season.
Benson laughed and said, “It’s timely, the conversation.”
After a lifetime waiting for a storm just like Irma, he believed Conchs had a way of looking at the best of it and said, “The Keys are an inkling of how we live with a changing climate.” Eighty days after Irma, the overarching takeaway for Benson was, “This isn’t the last hurricane. We’re going to get more, and we’ll be just fine when it happens. We’re survivors down here. We’ve always had an independent spirit.”
But in light of Irma’s path that altered the Lower Keys’ ecosystem, which rose out of the ocean floor almost 12,000 years ago, Benson noted, “We’re seeing the seeds of life. Everything was wiped clean, and now you see new islands and flats form—new spots open up.”
If anything, Benson believes the storm will have a positive effect on the fishery. The spark in his voice reminded me of the run back home from the Marquesas during that reconnaissance trip in September. We felt refreshed after washing off the dust by stretching some line. But more important, I remembered how mountains of purple clouds built up over Key West Harbor as we crossed the Northwest Channel, and I thought to myself: You can’t drown a Conch.